One does not improve with age

Old age is all wisdom but little or no dignity… Getting old was always pain, but now it is shame as well, thanks to the pace of technological change… To hear people talk about the “intelligent design” under these circumstances is not just insensitive but adds insult to injury.  One only has to walk into a nursing home or a hospital to see the state of decrepitude that the human body suffers with age.

(Published in Daily Times, 29 June 2006)

At a lunch in celebration of her official 80th birthday recently, Queen Elizabeth II amused her audience with this quotation from Groucho Marx: “Anyone can get old, all you have to do is live long enough.”

The truth, however, is that while everyone wants to live long, no one wants to get old.  And with good reason too.  For most people, being old is not just a pain in the ass, it is quite literally a pain all over.  The bones creak, the spine stoops, the joints hurt and the flesh, or what is left of it, is often sore.  The hand will not hold, the teeth (if there are many left, that is) will not chew and the stomach will not digest.

Furthermore, the blood pressure and the blood sugar level will either be too high or too low, never just right. Bone density will definitely be low when it should be high and the reverse will be true for cholesterol level, high when it should be low.  Whereas the blocked arteries will not let blood pass freely, the bladder will not hold, allowing an embarrassingly free flow.  Cardiac arrest, renal failure, hip fracture, soft bones and tissue decay are the terms in currency.  It is Murphy’s Law in old age: everything that can possibly go wrong, will go wrong.

No jam or butter over one’s toast in the waning years.  One must avoid eggs and desist from sweets, pastries and cakes.  Pickles are too acidic and fried food does an old man no good.  Chocolates are out.  And, of course, one better quit drinking and smoking before it’s too late, whatever that means.  Keeping awake during the day is hard, but a good night’s sleep is a rare luxury.  Sleepless nights and sleepy days is the natural state in old age.

While not an iota of the body seems to be in working order, unlike most good products, the human body comes neither with a manufacturer’s warranty, nor diagram, nor spare parts nor after-sales service.  It’s all trial and error, hit and miss.  If the medicine doesn’t work, one is advised to go to a homeopath, or an osteopath, or a naturopath, or an acupuncturist or a physiotherapist or an ayurved or some such. Some will go to the saint or holy man (pir), whether living or dead.  Others will ask for prayers from all and sundry.  Yet others wait or shop for potential donors for body parts.

To hear people talk about the “intelligent design” under these circumstances is not just insensitive but adds insult to injury.  One only has to walk into a nursing home or a hospital to see the state of decrepitude that the human body suffers with age.

The few who are fortunate enough to defy the rule and keep relatively good health in old age are condemned to live with what John Kenneth Galbraith called the “still syndrome”.  Younger people are surprised that these oldies are “still” doing this and doing that, like still being able to chat, walk, eat, travel and enjoy themselves.  The worst offence on the part of an old man is to ever let slip that he “still” enjoys the sight of a beautiful woman.  Not for him the pleasures of life, not even the verbal appreciation of beauty!

Old age is all wisdom but little or no dignity.  All old people are wiser than their younger former selves and most of their younger counterparts, but few will ever seek to benefit from their wisdom.  Young people avoid them as best they can and society retires them as early as economically feasible.  When young, one assumes that youth is a permanent state, as if old people were born old.  Every teenager assumes that he was born to forever be young and fit.

Getting old was always pain, but now it is shame as well, thanks to the pace of technological change.  It is exhilarating for the young but frustrating for the old.  In the “good old days” the younger looked to older people for nearly everything, to solve this and to handle that.  Now, a father can’t even handle a remote control of his VCR without the help of his child.  Even 5-6 year-olds can handle some of the essential gadgets of modern life, such as a camera or a computer, better than 50 year-olds.

Being older now means that there are certain job titles one cannot even understand, let alone work at.  Consider, for example, a “Securities Lending Junior Trader”.  Or think of an “Architectural Furniture Director.”

It is true, of course, that old age is less kind to some than others. Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, custodian of the two holy mosques, could be counted among the living dead since the age of 72, after suffering a stroke.  He died ten years later.  ButMalaysia’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, is a one-man Opposition Party at age 81, firing on all cylinders, attacking Bush, Blair and Ahmad Badawi, his own handpicked prime minister.

Ronald Reagan, the most powerful man in the world’s most powerful country for eight years (President of the United States, 1981-1989) – the man who is personally credited with humiliating the world’s other superpower and who had survived an assassin’s bullet in his younger days – came down with Alzheimer’s at the age of 83 soon after retirement.   He “lived” his last ten years the life of an infant, tended to by his loving wife and carers, oblivious to the world around him, not even knowing how to eat and dress.

Ahmad Deedat, the best-known disseminator or Islam in the twentieth century, president of the Islamic Propagation Centre International (IPCI), spent the last nine years of his life paralyzed from the neck down after suffering a stroke, unable to speak or swallow.  He was the author of over 20 books and countless pamphlets on Islam, millions of copies of which were distributed for free, many of which had been translated into various languages. Needless to say, millions of Muslims prayed for his recovery.  He died in 2005.

Pope John Paul II personified physical pain in the last decade of his life, having been afflicted with Parkinson’s disease.  On the other hand, many despots and dictators, who lived to ripe old age, died in relatively good health.  Among them, Hafez Al Assad of Syria (70 years), Joseph Stalin of Russia (75 years), Francisco Franco of Spain (82 years), and Deng Xiaoping of China (92 years).

Like death, the perils of old age do not discriminate by race or religion, wealth or knowledge, power or piety.  Neither of them distinguishes between saints and sinners.  The wages of youth must be paid in old age, more or less, by all those who find themselves fortunate enough to live long.  Ageing may not hit everyone with the same ferocity or brutality.  But make no mistake, the human body is not like good wine.  It doesn’t get better with age.

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